A matter of fact

    Timothy Caulfield and the battle of science vs. pop culture

    By Kristy Condon on June 1, 2015

    Professor, policy advisor, voice of reason: Timothy Caulfield ('87 BSc, '90 LLB) wears a lot of hats, both in his formal role as an academic as well as through his efforts to bring some of the world's biggest pop cultural influencers under the microscope for their counsel in matters of science.

    His journey at the University of Alberta began as an undergraduate student in psychology. "In my undergrad, I was really interested in brain chemistry and brain biology, which are actually huge right now, so maybe I should have stuck with that," he notes with a laugh.

    A growing interest in policy inspired him to pursue a career in health law. “I was always attracted to the controversial topics, so that’s what drew me to law school. I wanted to be able to argue with facts.”

    By day, Caulfield is a professor in both UAlberta’s Faculty of Law and School of Public Health. He’s also the research director of the University of Alberta’s Health Law Institute (HLI), where he examines health law and science policy using an evidence-based approach.

    Off the clock, however, Caulfield is the voice of reason for popular health and science, largely through his active presence in the media and on Twitter. He has also authored two books on the intersection of science and pop culture: The Cure for Everything: Untangling the TwistedMessages about Health, Fitness, and Happiness, and Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash.

    The latter of these has dominated the mainstream media following its Canadian release in January and May release in the U.S. “Debunking, for me, is both fun, and I think also really important,” says Caulfield. With the right mix of humor and hard facts, Caulfield’s commentary on pseudoscience and celebrity influence has elevated him to one of the biggest voices in Canadian science.

    “Celebrities really do have an impact,” he explains—and the reasons are complicated. “I don’t think for the most part people even realize that they are being influenced by them [celebrities]. I don’t think people consciously make the decision to turn to someone like Gwyneth Paltrow for health advice, but she represents this image, this lifestyle that people can relate to.”

    Fighting snake oil with science

    It seems ironic that in the 21st century—a time when accurate information based on real research is often just a click away—people are so quick to trust the endorsement of unqualified individuals, often at face value. At the same time, mistrust is rampant when it comes to critical social issues like vaccinations and global warming.

    "When everything sounds like magic, it can be easier to accept the bogus stuff along with the evidence-based science."

    “Information is so free right now,” says Caulfield. “I think, though, that there is an erosion of trust. People are suspicious of ‘Big Pharma’ and ‘Big Food’. There’s a fear of industry and potential corruption. What people forget is that those issues don’t make the scientific process wrong. They highlight the need for good independent science.”

    The science is there, but it’s confusing at best, if not contradictory. “Science is becoming so complicated. It used to be that, say, we build an airplane—and you could explain the mechanics of it, how it works, and people could understand that. Now, you talk about stem cells and neuroscience, and it sounds like magic,” explains Caulfield. “So you can see how when everything sounds like magic, it can be easier to accept the bogus stuff along with the evidence-based science.”

    And there, he says, lies the real issue. In a recent UAlberta study out of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, researchers Mike Allen, Mike Kolber (’92 BSc), and Christina Korownyk (’98 BSc) looked at two televised medical talk shows, Dr. Oz and The Doctors, to record the recommendations made in each episode. They then followed up on the strongest recommendations to determine if there was evidence to support the claims. The results were telling—only about half the recommendations on The Doctors and just one in three of Dr. Oz’s recommendations could be supported by believable scientific evidence.

    “There’s this phenomenon that I like to call medical and stem cell tourism, where people take an exciting aspect of science—something that’s legitimately ground-breaking and amazing—and then they take that science and make a bogus product from it.” Many of these originate in legitimate science (for example, the modest benefits of drinking green tea), and then create an unsubstantiated, supposedly health-improving product from it (like green tea diet pills).

    "People take an exciting aspect of science—something that’s legitimately ground-breaking and amazing—and then they take that science and make a bogus product from it.”

    Some of the “science” is fairly obvious to the average person. When Gwyneth Paltrow recommended an intimate V-steam treatment to cleanse the uterus, for example, plenty of eyebrows raised among even her most devoted followers. However, less dramatic treatments like undergoing a cleanse or adopting a particular diet may seem like reasonable alternative health care options, particularly when there is a low perceived risk of adverse effects.

    “People will argue, for example, that although homeopathic remedies have never been scientifically proven to work, at least they aren’t harmful. That still doesn’t change the fact that they are proven not to work.”

    On a highly visible platform like Twitter, Caulfield’s outspoken stance on celebrity pseudoscience leaves him open to criticism as well. “I don’t mind when people attack my ideas,” he stresses. “What I do mind is when people say that I’m narrow-minded. I’m actually very open-minded—if I have an idea about something, and you can convince me that I’m incorrect using evidence-based arguments, then I will change my opinion.”

    He encourages informed individuals including students to add their own voices to the conversation. “Social media is not going away. Get involved, be part of the discussion, and strive to be as scientifically accurate as you can. Use the best available evidence.”

    As far as Caulfield is concerned, he is happy to continue fighting the good fight—both online and in shaping science-informed policy. His advice for those just starting out on their careers: “I know this is a horrible cliché, but it’s true for me—love what you’re doing and love the journey. Enjoy the opportunity to learn. When you excel, the opportunities emerge, so find something that you love, and excel at it.”